It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Self-publishing – one year on…

Whippleshield Books is now just over one year old and has to date published two books, one of them an award-winner. Although I started up the press in March 2012, and published Adrift on the Sea of Rains on 9 April 2012, Whippleshield Press’s online presence didn’t happen until 25 May 2012. So that’s a handful of days over twelve months, plus or minus a month or two. It has been… an interesting year.

Any discussion of self-publishing is sure to be over-shadowed by the likes of Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking. They have been amazingly successful at it – and, to be honest, I can’t see why. I’ve read Wool, it’s not very good. Which pretty much demonstrates there is no magic formula to success at self-publishing. Something in Wool clicked with a large number of people, but whatever it was it’s far from obvious. What this means is that Howey is not an expert on self-publishing, and has very little that’s useful to add to the debate. And, in all fairness, he has admitted as much: this is what worked for me, he has said, but it doesn’t mean it will work for you. The media, however, are only interested in success stories, as if somewhere in every one of them is an obvious recipe for success. There has been some discussion recently of such “survivor bias”, and to anyone with any common sense it’s plain that luck is not a transferable skill. If one ticket wins the lottery, buying the ticket with a number one up from it does not mean you will also win.

Commercially, Whippleshield Books has not been a “winner”. I’m okay with this – I didn’t set it up to make me pots of money. If anything, I expected it to be a financial burden for much of its life. Happily, it went into the black in March this year… but then the ecommerce annual fee came due and I also had to reprint Adrift on the Sea of Rains. But it’s been back in the black since the beginning of May and seems likely to remain there. Whether it’ll have earned enough to pay the cost of producing book three of the Apollo Quartet is a different matter, however. I’ve been funding Whippleshield Books out of my own pocket so far, so if it doesn’t it won’t affect my planned publishing schedule.

Speaking of which, I’ve received three submissions in the past twelve months. One I bounced immediately as not meeting the guidelines. The other two I rejected after requesting the full ms. To be honest, I had expected to be sent more, even if most would prove completely unsuitable. I can only surmise I’m the only person writing the type of fiction I want to publish. Happily, I’m not the only person who wants to read it, as sales for the first two books of the Apollo Quartet have shown:

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The two spikes are due to mentions in the Guardian (here and here). The second one coincided with Adrift on the Sea of Rains winning the BSFA Award, so the win may also have contributed. But given that the full novella was published in the BSFA Award booklet for members, I suspect it didn’t have that much effect. I’ve added “WINNER OF THE 2012 BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION ASSOCIATION AWARD” to the product description on Amazon, but I’ve no idea if that has had any impact.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains continues to sell well on Kindle – better in the UK than in the US, it must be said. The number of Amazon paperback orders has also picked up, typically now around one a week. Of course, I’d sooner those sales took place on the Whippleshield website, but I know of no way to drive customers there from Amazon. When I mentioned in a previous blog post that Kindle sales were “more or less pure profit”, someone on a forum responded: “I had to laugh at this one. Shows a real lack of understanding of the costs involved in running a successful website. Electronic files take up disk space which has to be paid for. The transfer of electronic files uses bandwidth that has to be paid for”. To which I can only say, if you’re paying for storage of a single electronic copy of your book, and can actually work out the cost of uploading that file to Amazon, then I suspect other people are laughing at you.

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The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself has not been selling quite as well. Nor has it been reviewed as extensively as Adrift on the Sea of Rains (review e-copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are still available, incidentally), though the genre venues that have reviewed it seem to have taken to it slightly better than Adrift on the Sea of Rains. But then I did write it in such a way to force a reading protocol more tuned to sf readers.

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Of course, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself has only been available since late January this year, so around four months in total. And word about Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still making its way throughout the genre landscape – such as making an appearance on SF Squeecast here, courtesy of Paul Cornell. Two books is a slim presence, especially given that they’re novellas too. I’ve had no short fiction published in genre venues with large audiences, at least not yet. So my platform remains small, and still chiefly confined to the UK.

Interestingly, Wunderwaffe, a short story of 9000 words which originally appeared in Anarchy Books’ Vivisepulture anthology, and which I produced as a chapbook limited to 12 copies before publishing it on Kindle, has been selling surprisingly well in the US. This may due to its low price. The $1.16 price-point, and the clearly stated length of 27 pages, however, hasn’t prevented a couple of people from leaving one-star reviews complaining that it isn’t a novel. I’m especially impressed by the review which states “stick to established authors that don’t give short stories under the cover of a book”. I think you’ll find “established authors” have also been known to publish short stories on Kindle too. In fact, John Scalzi’s latest novel was serialised, with each chapter sold as a separate ebook (not entirely the same thing, I know, but you know what I mean).

So there you have it – Whippleshield Books after twelve months. More or less. Plans for world domination may have to be put back another year or so. I believe Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first self-published work to win a BSFA Award – although there are a couple of self-published works in this year’s Hugo shortlists. The stigma attached to the word “self-publishing” is slowly being eroded, but that doesn’t mean the self-published market is still not full of badly-written and poorly-edited derivative rubbish. But the good stuff is getting easier to find. I like to think that Whippleshield Books is, and will be, seen as a purveyor of that “good stuff”.


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Warm below the storm, part 2

Reading about deep sea exploration, it struck me that the bottom of the ocean is a much scarier place than outer space. Humans cannot survive in either, of course, without technological intervention; but the sea is a more deceptive environment. It should be safe, it nurtured us after all – before birth, and back when life on Earth began. But we can’t breathe H2O, and the pressure can kills us in lots of sneaky and interesting ways long before it’s strong enough to squish us flat. And yet science fiction has treated the difficulties and dangers of the deep ocean with much the same disregard as it has for space.

Getting off a planet is costly and dangerous, and requires the expenditure of a great deal of energy. Sf pretends it has a magic way of doing this, one that mitigates the difficulty and danger. Getting to the bottom of the ocean may be much simpler – you just sink – but it’s equally dangerous. And living down there requires much the same level of assistance and engineering as living in space. Science fiction has its space stations and O’Neill cylinders and hollowed-out asteroids and orbitals, and they allegedly make living in space as mundane as living on this planet. Likewise, the genre posits underwater cities and humans genetically-engineered to live underwater, or submarines capable of reaching fantastical depths. But it’s all glib and unconvincing, just like sf is in its treatment of any place off-Earth.

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I’ve not read a great deal of watery sf. For some reason, it seems to have passed me by. It’s not been as popular a subject in genre writing as outer space, which may explain how I’ve managed to miss it. I’ve certainly read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), whose Nautilus marks one of the first depictions of a submarine in fiction, if not the actual first. At one point in the novel, Nemo stops off at a “submarine forest”, and leads a party including Aronnax to “a narrow valley, between high perpendicular walls, situated about seventy-five fathoms deep”. Or about 450 ft. Which would be about 13.8 atmospheres, and would require compression and decompression – neither of which are mentioned. Another famous science-fictional submarine is the “subtug” in Frank Herbert’s first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1956, AKA Under Pressure). The story focuses on the mental pressure suffered by the crews of such submarines, as they sneak into enemy territory and pump oil from secret oilfields. The actual physical pressure of the deeps on the submarine itself is mostly ignored. Both The Deep Range (1957) and The Ghost From The Grand Banks (1990) by Arthur C Clarke, neither of which I’ve read, feature submarines. The first is apparently about undersea farming, and the second the raising of the wreck of the Titanic (also the subject of a thriller by Clive Cussler, titled – obviously – Raise the Titanic).

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Still in the 1950s, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson wrote a trilogy of novels set in and around the underwater city of Marinia: Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1956) and Undersea City (1958). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen copies of these, but from the cover art on Wikipedia they look like juveniles. James Blish and Norman L Knight’s A Torrent of Faces (1967), a novel which proved a better read than I had expected, features a semi-submerged hotel which sinks. Also in the novel are people genetically-engineered to be semi-aquatic, and much of the shallower regions of the oceans are farmed by them to feed the Earth’s tens of billions. A sf novel about which I know nothing is Hal Clement’s Ocean On Top (1973), and I mention it only because the cover art of the UK paperback features what looks like the bathyscaphe Trieste. In Marta Randall’s Islands (1976), the narrator joins an expedition to dive on sunken Hawaii to hunt for artefacts and treasure. The narrative doesn’t go into much detail on the diving. In 2000, Allen Steele swapped outer space for underwater in Oceanspace. According to the blurb on Amazon, it’s set in 2011 and depicts an undersea research station which encounters some sort of sea monster. Harriet Klausner gives it, of course, five stars, but another reviewer complains with a straight face of the characters’ lack of depth. Peter Watts Rifter series – Starfish (1999), Maelstrom(2001), Behemoth: ß-Max (2004) and Behemoth: Seppuku (2005) – is about humans modified to live and work in the deep ocean, but you have to wonder why he named one book after an obsolete videocassette format. Most recently, Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall is set in the world-ocean of a Europa-like moon – see my review on Daughters of Prometheus here.

I mentioned Clive Cussler earlier. His novels often feature submersibles and diving. I’ll admit I’ve not read any of them for over a decade. The first seven or eight were fun thrillers, but their quality began to plummet with the publication of Treasure (1988) and by Shock Wave (1996) they were all but unreadable. These days, Cussler runs a writing sweatshop much like James Patterson. Lincoln Child’s Deep Storm (2007) is a technothriller set in a secret military deep sea habitat, but judging by the plot précis given on Wikipedia, it seems little different to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

For more underwater science fiction, see these two posts on the topic, part one and part two, on Joachim Boaz’s Science Fiction and Other Ruminations.

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In the cinema, the topic again seems less popular than outer space. 1989 must have been a good year for underwater epics, however, as it saw the release of The Abyss, Leviathan and Deep Star Six. All three are set in habitats in the bottom of the sea. In The Abyss, it’s an oil rig – and they have a close encounter of the third kind. It’s been praised for its accuracy, but the liquid-breathing diving suit is pure invention. See here for photographs of the abandoned movie set, built in an uncompleted nuclear power plant. In Leviathan, they’re building an undersea missile base – so that would be just like a nuclear ballistic missile submarine then, that doesn’t move – and they stumble across the wreck of a Soviet ship which was apparently carrying a biological weapon. It infects the crew of the habitat, and the film turns into a soggy Alien. In Deep Star Six, they’re mining the ocean floor, and accidentally open a cave that has been sealed for millions of years, so releasing a monster. Which finds its way into the habitat… and the film turns into a soggy Alien.

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I’ve yet to buy a copy of The Neptune Factor (1973) on DVD, but from the plot summary on Wikipedia it sounds a bit daft. That may be a real submersible on the poster – DSV-2 Alvin, by the looks of it – and the underwater habitat in which the scientists live and work is called Sealab… But when an earthquake causes Sealab to fall into an oceanic trench, and the DSV is sent to rescue them, it encounters giant monster fish. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) is just as silly. Seaview is a state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, with ballistic missiles… and giant windows in the bow. While it is on trials, a meteor shower causes the Van Allen Radiation Belt to catch fire (um, right…), and the Earth has three weeks before everyone dies. The admiral in command of Seaview saves the day by firing a nuclear missile into the Van Allen Belt.

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Sphere (1998) has all the ingredients for a good story but somehow manages to be a rubbish film. A giant mysterious craft is discovered deep on the ocean bed (just like that one in the Baltic Sea), and a team of scientists are sent down to investigate. That first shot of the alien craft as the divers approach it is impressive… but it’s all downhill from there. Dark Descent (2002) is set in Challenger Deep. It’s a straight-to-DVD film and stars Dean Cain, which should tell you all you need to know. It’s basically Outland at the bottom of the ocean, with Cain in the Connery role.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea spawned a television series which ran for 110 episodes from 1964 to 1968. It’s been shown on British television several times, but I only vaguely remember watching it. The programme also featured a Flying Sub, which appears to have been based on Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Diving Saucer. I also vaguely remember seeing episodes of Primus, a US series which ran for only a single season in 1971 and 1972. It was about a diver and his various adventures. I must have seen it on Dubai television later that same decade. In the 1990s, there was seaQuest DSV. I only saw the first season in 1993, and fled the country before the second and thirds seasons were broadcast. I left for reasons other than to avoid seaQuest DSV, but missing them was an unintended bonus. I also reviewed the novelisation of the pilot episode for Paperback Inferno, and can remember only that the book was terrible and I filled the review with nautical and marine puns (as you do). More recently, in 2010, the BBC broadcast The Deep, a serial of five episodes starring Minnie Driver and James Nesbitt. Bits of it were interesting, but much of it was rubbish. Nuclear reactors, for example, do not explode.

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I’ve probably missed out loads of genre books, films or television series which were, if only partly, set underwater. There are, of course, lots of films about naval submarines – from Das Boot to The Hunt For Red October – and no doubt far more technothrillers which feature submersibles or divers than those written by Clive Cussler… but it’s not a genre I read. I’m tempted to try some of them but, while you don’t read technothrillers for the prose, I do hope they’re a good deal better than the crap Cussler’s sweatshop churns out these days…


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Warm below the storm, part 1

This was going to be another of my The future we used to have posts because, after all, the days of serious research into sustained living underwater, or seeing how deep human beings can survive, are long since past. These days, it’s all ROVs and atmospheric diving suits – James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep last year notwithstanding. But commercial saturation diving is still common in the oil industry, and a number of companies still send divers down to 200 or 300 metres. So, it’s not quite a future of the past just yet.

However, “inner space” – or at least the watery version of it – has been a reasonably popular locale for science fiction stories and novels. In my post on Sealab (see here), I mentioned some of them. This post, however, will be the real world. Next week, I’ll follow up with a part 2 on fictional submersibles, underwater habitats, deep sea diving, etc. For now…

submersibles

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DSV 1 Trieste II
max depth: 6100 m

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DSV 2 Alvin
max depth: 4500 m

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DSV 4 Sea Cliff
max depth: 6000 m

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Grumman/Piccard PX-15 Ben Franklin
max depth: 1200 m

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Interior of Ben Franklin

underwater habitats

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Sealab I (1964)
depth: 58 m

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Sealab II (1965)
depth: 62 m

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Artist’s impression of Sealab III (1969)
depth: 185 m

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Conshelf II (1963)
depth: 10 m

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Conshelf III (1965)
depth: 102.4 m

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Helgoland II (1971 – 1977)
depth: 31 m

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Tekite (1969 – 1970)
depth: 13.1 m

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Aquarius (1986 – present)
depth: 20 m

saturation divers

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Oceaneering saturation divers

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Oceaneering Nautilus diving bell

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Saturation diver preparing to leave diving bell


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New look

Today I decided the blog was looking all a bit noughties, so it was time for a fresh coat of paint. It’s just one of the free WordPress themes, so it’s nothing fancy. I’ve kept the widgets the same, so there’s the two book of the Apollo Quartet, but now on the right-hand side of the page. Plus the cover art for the various places I’ve so far appeared in print.

The header photo is Apollo 15 sitting somewhat lopsidedly on the Sea of Rains. I was actually planning to use something completely different, but I stumbled across that one on my hard-drive and it seemed the right one to use. Also in the header… it’s the return of the subtitle! Yes, all these years and this blog has actually been called “It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… It Just Has To Sound Plausible”. The previous theme I used chopped off the second part of the phrase. And now, it has now been reinstated.

All I need to do now is post more regularly… And write more interesting posts…


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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The future we used to have, part 18

As well as the USSR, USA and UK, many other nations were involved in the Cold War. However, none, it seems, built quite as many aircraft as those three countries. As a result, this “rest of the world” post proved really difficult to put together. The USA and USSR were in a military pissing contest, so it’s no real surprise they manufactured hundreds of different types of aircraft. Britain’s large inventory was a result of the role the country played in World War 2… But few other nations invested quite so much in their own military-industrial complexes, and seemed mostly happy to purchase their military aircraft from the USSR, USA or UK. The following aircraft, however, were all the products of their nation’s aerospace companies. Not all of them ever saw service.

fighters

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Avro Arrow
Interceptor prototype
(Canada)

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Dassault Mirage G
Swing-wing interceptor prototype
(France)

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SNCASO SO.9000 Trident
Interceptor prototype
(France)

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EWR VJ-101
Experimental VTOL fighter
(Germany)

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Soko/Avioane Craiova JR-22 Orao
Fighter
(Yugoslavia/Romania)

fighter/bombers

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Xian JH-7 FBC-1 Flying Leopard
Fighter/bomber
(China)

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Dassault Mirage IV
Supersonic strategic bomber
(France)

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Hindustan Aeronautics HF-24 Marut
Fighter/bomber
(India)

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Fiat G.91
Fighter/bomber
(Italy)

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Saab 36
Proposed supersonic bomber
(Sweden)


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12-question book meme

“For a lazy Saturday”, says SF Signal (see here). It’s Saturday, I’m feeling lazy, so why not? Twelve SF/F/H-related questions on which to do the meme thing:

1. The last sf/f/h book I read and enjoyed was:
I just reread Eric Brown’s four Starship Seasons novellas – Starship Summer, Starship Fall, Starship Winter and Starship Spring – and enjoyed them. The last genre book I read that really impressed me was M John Harrison’s Empty Space.

2. The last sf/f/h book I read and did not enjoy was:
Moonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold. A palimpsest novel in which Gerrold uses various stories and testimonies to build up a picture of the terraformed world of Satlik and its inhabitants, who chose their gender at puberty or “blush”. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Gerrold forgot about his plot – three-quarters of the book is scene-setting before an actual plot is squeezed in at the end. I now have a copy for sale.

3. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to new sf/f/h readers is:
Dark Eden, Chris Beckett. Yes, it won the Clarke Award this year, but as sf texts go it’s quite low-level. By that I mean, despite being set on a rogue planet between galaxies, which features an entirely invented ecosystem, the story itself is as old as the Bible and even readers unfamiliar with the genre and its tropes should have little trouble sympathising with the book’s cast.

The same is also true of Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden. It’s set in a small community protected from a post-apocalyptic Earth by a mysterious alien forcefield. The characters are beautifully drawn, the plot works like a well-oiled engine, and there’s nothing in the book at which a non-genre reader might balk.

Um, the Eden references in the titles are purely coincidental…

4. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to seasoned sf/f/h readers is:
Obviously, I would recommend all the sf novels I most admire. But perhaps I should instead recommend a non-genre book that I think genre readers would enjoy – such as Girl Reading by Katie Ward, or The Explorer by James Smythe. Both were marketed as literary fiction but use sf tropes, and both are considerably better-written than is the norm for genre fiction. Girl Reading is, to my mind, the better of the two, but both are certainly worth reading.

For someone looking for fiction in smaller bites, the sf collection that comes to mind is The Universe of Things by Gwyneth Jones.

5. The sf/f/h book I most want to read next is:
I am so bad at deciding what to read that I have to make a list. Some of my reading is dictated by SF Mistressworks – I have to read and review books to keep to its one-a-week schedule – but that’s no real hardship. Genre books on the list to read some time in the near-future include Principles of Angels, Slow Apocalypse, Rapture, Cyclonopedia, Never at Home and Watermind. Plus a lot of non-genre, such as Under the Volcano, Stonemouth, The Cleft, Killer in the Rain and The Sweetheart Season.

6. My favorite sf/f/h book series includes:
Tricky. I love the Dune series, but I don’t think the individual books in it are especially good. And the whole thing has been poisoned by the McDune books churned out by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert. L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle is a series I really want to reread; the same is true of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. But there’s no actual series, in which one novel follows directly on from another for more than three, four or five books, that I’d call a favourite. There are series that contain books I like a great deal and/or admire – the Culture, Eight Worlds, Hainish Cycle, Jurisdiction, Alliance-Union, Dumarest saga… But despite the many seemingly endless series currently being published, there’s none that I eagerly buy each installment the moment it is published.

7. I will read anything by this sf/f/h author:
Easy. Gwyneth Jones.

8. The first sf/f/h book I read was:
It was a Dr Who novelisation: Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Then, at school, a classmate introduced me to proper science fiction when he lent me Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that it was EE ‘Doc’ Smith and I was hooked. Now, I can no longer read those books.

9. The sf/f/h book I’m most surprised that more people don’t like is:
Probably Coelestis by Paul Park, which I feel deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series. In the past, I’ve championed both Take Back Plenty and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, and they’re now in the series so I live in hope.

10 .The sf/f/h book I’m surprised so many people do like is:
Basically, anything by Asimov. Especially the Foundation series. More recently, I’ve been baffled by the acclaim given to, among others, Wool, The Windup Girl, Leviathan Wakes, or A Song of Ice and Fire. And while I’ve read and enjoyed books by China Miéville, I still can’t see why he’s the poster boy for British genre fiction.

11. The most expensive sf/f/h book I own is:
A hardback first edition of The Dune Encyclopedia. Paperback copies are rare and not cheap, but I was lucky enough to find a hardback copy. It was very expensive, but it was worth it.

12. The number of sf/f/h books I own and have yet to read is:
Not sure; somewhere around the 300 mark, I expect. I did try reading a book on speed reading once, but it took me ages to finish it… But seriously, I typically read three to four books a week. Even so, it’s going to take me years to whittle down the TBR. Especially given that I continue to buy new books all the time…


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The future we used to have, part 17

Back in the day, the UK used to have a massive aircraft industry. It was because of the Second World War, of course. We churned out huge numbers of bombers and fighters during those years, but even in the two decades following, there were dozens of aircraft manufacturers in Britain, all bidding on government contracts. Over the years, the various companies merged, amalgamated, or went under, until pretty much all we were left with was British Aerospace. But back in the 1950s and 1960s, when names like Avro, Vickers, Handley Page, de Havilland, Gloster, Supermarine, still meant something, the UK built some iconic military aircraft. Not just the V-Bombers, but also the English Electric Lightning interceptor, the sadly-cancelled TSR.2, or the Canberra – which became the B-57 under licence in the US…

fighters

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English Electric Lightning

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Gloster Javelin

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De Havilland Sea Vixen

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Saunders-Roe SR.53

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Supermarine Type 508

bombers

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Handley Page Victor

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Avro Vulcan

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English Electric Canberra

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BAC TSR.2

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Vickers Valiant

The SR.53 was a prototype rocket- and jet-propelled interceptor; only two were built. The Type 508 was also a prototype, and a later version of it, without the butterfly tail, went on to enter service as the Supermarine Scimitar.


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In an octopus’s garden

Back in the 1930s, Swiss scientist August Piccard held records for both the highest altitude ever reached and the deepest ocean descent. In the last couple of years I’ve found myself retracing a similar journey, and while I may have travelled higher and deeper, I’ve done it from the comfort of my armchair. In books.

I was three when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, so the Space Race was a part of the world in which I grew up. I had a childish interest in it, but in my late thirties that interest was rekindled after reading Andrew Smith’s Moondust. I’ve since used my fascination with the topic in my writing – not just the Apollo Quartet, but also in published and soon-to-be-published short stories. And I plan to continue doing so.

In 2010, I learnt it was the fiftieth anniversary of the first descent by human beings to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean on the planet, some 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific. In January 1960, Lieutenant Don Walsh, USN, and Jacques Piccard, son of Auguste Piccard, had reached the ocean-bottom in the bathyscaphe Trieste (which had also been designed and built by Auguste Piccard). I was surprised to discover that very little had been made of the two men’s achievement – in fact, I could find only a single book on the topic, Seven Miles Down, which I wrote about here. Contrast this with the huge numbers of books published in 2009 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing (such as these).

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Space exploration has been in the public eye since 1957 and the launch of Sputnik. Underwater exploration – especially deep sea exploration – has not. Yet it’s actually just as fascinating a topic. While the “commute” is a great deal simpler and less expensive – you just sink – the environment at the bottom of the ocean is every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than space. It is an area in which great strides were made during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and in which all the various problems were solved by brute-force engineering… only for interest to fade away as it proved too difficult to keep human beings alive in that environment. Just like space exploration.

Recently, I’ve been reading about underwater exploration – partly as a result of my ongoing interest in the Trieste, but also because I’ve felt it’s a good subject for short fiction. Earlier this week, I finished Sealab by Ben Hellwarth, which is about the US Navy’s programme during the 1960s to build an underwater habitat. I also have a copy of Living and Working in the Sea by James W Miller and Ian G Koblick (recommended by Gavin Smith). And, of course, there’s plenty of material on the internet. Even so, underwater exploration is not as well documented as space exploration.

The idea of living at the bottom of the sea is not a new one. The best-known fictional example is likely Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and that’s from 1870. There are, of course, plenty of difficulties to overcome – and not just the fact that human beings can’t breathe water. The deeper you go, the higher the pressure – one atmosphere for every ten metres of water. So at 610 m (2000 ft), that’s 61 atmospheres, or 61 kg per square centimetre. At such pressures, ordinary air is too dangerous to breathe. Not only is the partial pressure of oxygen increased to levels which can be toxic, but the nitrogen causes nitrogen narcosis, which presents as a form of debilitating drunkenness. Nitrogen also dissolves in the cells of the body, and returning to normal atmospheric pressure causes the gas to bubble out, often with fatal consequences – the bends. As a result, divers visiting below 60 m use a helium-oxygen mix. They must also decompress slowly to normal atmospheric pressure, a process that often takes longer than the period spent underwater.

One technique that has allowed greater depths to be reached is “saturation diving”. In this, the diver spends time before the dive in a sealed chamber in which the pressure is slowly increased – often over days – to the required level. If, for example, the diver will be operating at 200 m (650 ft), by the time they’ve completed compression, they will be breathing a helium-oxygen mix at 20 atmospheres, and the cells of their body will also be at that pressure. A sudden return to normal atmospheric pressure would be quite literally explosive.

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Saturation diving is frighteningly dangerous. In 1962, Swiss physicist and diver Hannes Keller announced he would dive to the hitherto considered impossible depth of 305 m (1000 ft) using a secret mixture of breathing gases. In a diving bell, Atlantis, he and a British journalist, Peter Small, were lowered to the seabed off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California. The plan was for Keller to place a Swiss and US flag on the seabed. Somehow, he managed to get his umbilical tangled in the flags as he returned to the bell, and once inside he passed out as the gas mixture had gone bad. Small had already blacked out. The bell was raised, and at 60 m (200 ft) support divers were sent down to assist. One of them never returned. Once the bell was on the ship, Keller revived, followed by Small two hours later; but Small then passed out again. Several hours later, Keller noticed that Small had stopped breathing. He tried to resuscitate him, to no avail. Once the bell’s atmosphere had reached two atmospheres – eight hours after it was originally sealed – it was opened and Small rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Keller had broken the deep-diving record, but at the cost of two lives.

Underwater exploration, and living, has been more successful in shallower waters, typically no more than 10 or 20 metres – depths at which it’s safe for a diver to head immediately for the surface. Jacques Cousteau operated his three Conshelf habitats in the Mediterranean between 1962 and 1965, before interest waned in the idea. US industrial Edwin Link, inventor of the flight simulator, experimented with his SPID, Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling, in which diver Robert Sténuit set a series of records, including spending 24 hours at 62 m (200 ft) in 1962. The biggest such project, though it was initially run on a shoestring budget, was the US Navy’s Sealab, the brainchild of Commander George F Bond, who before joining the Navy had worked as a country doctor in an Appalachian village called, amazingly, Bat Cave. The Sealab programme comprised three habitats, each one larger and better-equipped than the preceding one, placed in progressively deeper water. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter joined the project on loan from NASA and spent thirty days in Sealab II. Sealab III, however, was plagued by technical problems, and ended in tragedy when a diver from the first team sent down to open up and then live in the habitat died of carbon dioxide poisoning on the ocean bottom at 185 m (610 ft).

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The US Navy subsequently shut down the Sealab programme, but research into saturation diving continued in the private sector as oil companies began offshore drilling at deeper depths. They needed divers for seabed maintenance and repairs. A few other attempts were made at underwater habitats, but the idea of sustained underwater living, especially at depths of 200 m or more, was soon dropped. These days there are only a handful of underwater habitats in operation, and they all sit in shallow water – such Aquarius, which is in 20 m of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Even commercial divers found it more efficient to stay aboard a ship in a sealed chamber at the required pressure, and travel to the seabed in a diving bell to work. These days, of course, much of the work done by saturation divers is instead done by remotely-operated vehicles, ROVs, which can operate much deeper and don’t require decompression.

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While the US Navy may have canned Sealab, it didn’t abandon saturation diving. Instead, it mounted a secret mission to retrieve debris from Soviet missile tests from the floor of the Sea of Okhotsk. The US Navy then realised it could use saturation divers to place taps on Soviet military submarine cables some 120 m (400 ft) down in the same region. Operation Ivy Bells provided a lot of useful intelligence throughout the 1970s, before it was compromised by a traitor within the CIA in 1980.

During the 1970s, commercial diving companies and some navies had tried to extend the depth at which saturation divers could operate. Somewhere around the 310 m mark, however, divers begin to suffer from a variety of symptoms, even when using a helium-oxygen mix: lethargy, dizziness, shakes, vomiting, delusion and hallucinations. This was dubbed High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, HPNS, and it seemed like a natural limit had finally been reached. Eventually, it was discovered that by adding hydrogen, or a small amount of nitrogen, to the gas mix, HPNS could be avoided. Commercial saturation diving to 300 m became routine, and depths of around 600 m were found to be possible – in fact, to date the deepest dive ever recorded by human beings was to 534 m (1752 ft) by a team of commercial saturation divers in 1988. The deepest simulated dive – ie, in a compression chamber on land – was to 701 m (2300 ft) as part of a scientific exercise by a commercial diving company. The diver spent three hours at 70 atmospheres, and experienced only minor HPNS symptoms, a slight tremor. At present, it is believed human beings cannot survive deeper than 750 m to 1000 m.

Much like space exploration, science fiction typically glosses over the difficulties associated with living and working underwater – especially at depth. There have been numerous novels, films and even television series featuring underwater cities, but most seemed to take as given that some element of humanity has been engineered to survive underwater – even at depth. James Blish and Norman L Knight’s A Torrent of Faces features aquatic humans, as do, more recently, Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth and Peter Watts’ Rifters Trilogy. Actual diving, or realistic underwater habitats, seems more the province of techno-thrillers – much like accurate space exploration has been. Michael Crichton’s Sphere, for example, has all the elements of a good story – saturation diving, underwater habitat, and a mysterious alien spacecraft on the ocean bottom… but still manages to be a bad film. The Abyss is perhaps one of the best cinematic representations of deep sea diving, but the fluid-breathing diving suit is pure invention. Given the actual achievements made last century in saturation diving and underwater habitats, it seems a shame the topic is not more commonly used in science fiction.

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Having said all that, depth is no obstacle when people remain in a one-atmosphere environment, as they do in a submarines, submersibles or atmospheric diving suits. Sf representations of these are far more common – from Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea to the seaQuest DSV television series. But that’s a topic for another post…


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Double stacked

I promised a book haul post and here it is. Unusually, this month’s haul consists chiefly of research books, and first editions for various collections. Which actually probably makes it a little more expensive than is typical… Oh well.

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I bought these for research for Apollo Quartet books 3 and 4 – so yes, as promised, the role of women is much increased in the second half of the quartet. These four books – Women with Wings, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex, Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps and Women Astronauts – only apply to part of the planned stories for the two novellas, however. I guess you’ll have to buy Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows when they’re published to find out precisely how…

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More research. Sort of. Sealab I bought just because it looked interesting. And as the bookmark indicates, I’m about a third of the way into it and it is interesting. Fascinating, even. I may well post about it later. The Very Short Introductions – Utopianism, Communism and The Soviet Union – are quite useful research tools, though they’re obviously only starting points. The Russian Cosmists is for a novel I’m working on. I started the novel the year before last when I had a bash at NaNoWriMo. I managed 15,000 words before giving up, but I recently realised that if I restructured it and took the plot in a different direction, I could end up with something quite interesting.

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A bunch of genre works. The Dog Stars was shortlisted for the Clark Award this year. I found that copy in a charity shop. The Lowest Heaven is an ARC of the latest anthology from Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. This ARC is just the stories, but the finished product will apparently contain a number of astronomical photographs. It’s due out next month. Seoul Survivors I have to review for Interzone. And The Maker’s Mask is a self-published work I stumbled across on Amazon. From what I’ve read of it so far, it seems quite fun.

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Some signed genre collections. I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since the early 1980′s, so there was no way I was going to miss buying Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe, even if I have most of its contents in other collections. Trujillo I picked up cheap on eBay. It’s out of print and difficult to find – especially the slipcased edition. I also have the Night Shade Books edition, although this PS Publishing one includes the title novel and some additional short stories. Living Shadows was another cheap eBay purchase.

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These, er, weren’t cheap. The Alien Sky and A Male Child are first editions of Scott’s first and third novel, from 1953 and 1956. Despite the enduring popularity of The Raj Quartet, Scott’s other works are really difficult to find – especially the early ones. Happily, a Cambridge-based bookshop put some of his books up on eBay recently. So I bought them. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place is a 1962 first edition of Lowry’s first posthumous collection. It contains ‘Through the Panama’, which is currently one of my favourite pieces of novella-length fiction. It was sold by the same shop as the Scott novels.

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Finally, My Appointment with the Muse is a posthumous collection of Scott’s essays and talks. A Man Without Breath is the ninth and latest in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. I only have to read the novel prior to this one, Prague Fatale, and this one and I’m up to date.

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